6/9/11

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Beheading Holofernes (I)


Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples

Date: 1611-12
Technique: Oil on canvas, 158.8 x 125.5 cm

As with much of Artemisia Gentileschi's work, scholars have tried to explain the hair-raising Judith Beheading Holofernes as a personal reaction to her 'date-rape' trial of 1612, but, in truth, her point of departure was far more visual than psychological. Her primary source was undoubtedly Caravaggio's Judith (Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Rome) from some ten years earlier. The intense violence of the slaying, the lack of decorative details and even Judith's stiff parallel arms are all reliant on Caravaggio. Artemisia probably also knew Adam Elsheimer's Judith Beheading Holofernes (Victoria and Albert Museum, London), which was owned by Rubens. Elsheimer's small copper may have influenced the position of Holofernes' body and legs, although it should be noted that Artemisia's canvas has been cut down on the left and his legs are now missing. Other expressive and compositional elements can be related to the work of her father Orazio, especially his Judith and Her Maidservant (Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford). The youthful appearance and important co-conspiratorial role given to the maidservant Abra as well as the triangular structure are derived from Orazio's Hartford canvas.

Artemisia's Judith has such close affinities with her father's work that a number of scholars have argued for Orazio's authorship. It has been suggested that Artemisia's Judith Beheading Holofernes (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence) was essentially a fancy-dress copy of her father's earlier work and not an independent rethinking of the Naples composition. X-radiographs of the Naples picture reveal a substantial number of changes, which make it highly unlikely that the picture was a repetition of another composition. Furthermore, the quality of the execution is not high enough to be that of Orazio; nor did Orazio ever seek this level of brutal directness. The simplification of the drapery and lack of decorative embellishment are consistent with other pictures painted during Artemisia's first Roman period. A number of copies show the composition before it was cut down. A small one on touchstone (Quadreria Arcivescovile, Milan) is paired with a version of Orazio's David Contemplating the Head of Goliath (Galleria Spada, Rome). This may imply that both originals were in the same collection and that both were by Orazio, but it could also mean that the patron wanted a 'diptych' by father and daughter.

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